On Wednesday the 6th of April, eight 6.1 boys and two Modern Languages dons met at London Heathrow for what was to be a cultural, linguistic and, just as importantly, enjoyable experience in the heart of Madrid. Having arrived at Madrid Barajas airport and subsequently finding their way to the language school, each boy met their hosts for the week: two boys each staying in various homestays around Madrid with easy access to the language school. The advantage of this set-up was not only the convenience of being able to speak Spanish 24/7 and immerse oneself in the day-to-day life of a Spanish household, but also simply the benefit of meeting new people and finding out about Spanish society from an entirely native perspective.
An important aspect of this trip is, of course, the importance of improving the boys’ language skills and allowing them to consolidate what they have learnt at Radley in an entirely Spanish-speaking environment. Although the prospect of 13 hours of lessons over the course of the week initially appeared daunting, the boys quickly found out that the interactive teaching style and conversation-based lessons would make this learning easy and fun.
With lessons spread out over the course of the week, there was plenty of time for boys to let their hair down with one another and, indeed, the two accompanying dons: Mr Sumner and Ma’am Danis. Having been given a guided walking tour of central Madrid and having a customised themselves to Madrid’s metro system, the boys were able to meet up in their free-time in the afternoon and the evenings in local bars and cafés. Other activities included a tour of the Bernabéu stadium on the Sunday afternoon – a huge hit with the football-enthusiasts – and a number of overly-competitive Frisbee matches in various parks in Madrid.
Not only did the boys gain an appreciation of Spanish cuisine through various group lunches in local restaurants, but also a tapas course was organised at a Cooking Point near Plaza del Sol to show them how some of Spain’s most well-known dishes are made. Despite the occasional mishap, an enjoyable Sunday lunchtime ended with boys and dons alike tucking into their own creations: crema catalana, gambas al ajillo, chorizo a la sidra, patatas bravas and tortillas de patatas ranging in shapes and sizes. The group were also lucky enough to be welcomed into the house of Ignacio Urzáiz – a 6.1 boy in F social – for a wonderful dinner on Saturday evening with him and his family.
As relative novices in Spanish culture and history, these boys were treated to numerous guided tours and visits to some of Madrid’s, and indeed Spain’s, most famous monuments and sites. A guided visit to El Escorial on the Friday gave an interesting hindsight to Spain’s monarchic traditions; the Royal Site of San Lorenzo de El Escorial traditionally acted as a residence and monastery for the King of Spain and thus demonstrates the predominance of the Roman Catholic religion in Spanish history, particularly during the 16th and 17th centuries. However, a visit to Toledo on the Saturday open the boys' eyes to one of the more historically multicultural municipalities in central Spain. Often called "The City of the Three Cultures", Toledo is historically well-known for its religious tolerance and the consequent co-existence of Christian, Muslim and Jewish cultures within the city. A guided tour to the Primate Cathedral of Saint Mary of Toledo - previously a major mosque in Toledo before its Christian appropriation in the early 11th century - was an awe-inspiring introduction to Toledo's diverse cultural and religious history. Further tours of the Iglesia de Santo Tomé - the burial place of the celebrated artist El Greco - and the Sinagoga del Tránsito lent different perspectives to the multicultural richness of Toledo's history. Indeed, many boys became particularly interested in the swords and knives on display in souvenir shops throughout Toledo, a city which has been a traditional sword-making, steel-working centre since about 500 BC.
However, a visit on Friday afternoon to The Valle de los Caídos gave a harrowing illumination of a more unpleasant aspect of Spanish history and culture. Built by the dictator Francisco Franco to honour those who died for the fascist regime during the Spanish Civil War, this monument and its Catholic Basilica remain controversial in Spain today as much of the population dislike its representation of a darker period in Spanish history and the exploitation of hundreds of political prisoners in its construction. Despite the apparent horror of what The Valle de los Caídos comes to represent, its looming magnitude is lessened in comparison to Picasso's powerful anti-war painting Guernica. On the Monday, a guided tour of the Reina Sofía museum introduced boys to the progression of Spanish art and the prevalence of Cubism in Spain in the 19th century. Having viewed paintings from various celebrated artists such as Juan Gris, Ángeles Santos Torroella and Salvador Dalí, an absorbing tour culminated in a fascinating explanation of Pablo Picasso's masterpiece, Guernica. As a response to the violent and chaotic bombing of a Basque Country village in northern Spain during the Spanish civil war, this painting makes irresistible reference to the horrors of war and drew international attention to the Spanish civil war and the brutality of Franco's regime.
The trip itself was a very successful and memorable one and much of the praise must be given to Mr Sumner for organising the trip and to him and Ma'am Danis for taking excellent care of the boys and for providing patient and amusing company over the course of the week. A thank you must also be extended to International House Madrid and the teachers there for providing the boys with such helpful and enjoyable lessons as well as such interesting and expertly guided tours of the locations that were visited over the course of the week.
Report by Oliver Donaldson, F Social, 6.1